Haw Par Villa
June 20, 2011 7:14 PM   Subscribe

Haw Par Villa, also known as Tiger Balm Gardens, was quite possibly the weirdest theme park on the planet. The first park was built in Hong Kong in the 30s, soon followed by another in Singapore. Built by brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, who made their fortunes selling Tiger Balm, the park was really a sculpture garden devoted to all aspects of Chinese mythology. Weirdest and most surreal of all was the section of the park which depicted the the 10 levels of Buddhist hell, featuring demons dismembering sinners, and is best described as "if Heironymus Bosch built a putt putt course."
posted by puny human (30 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
click photos to embiggen
posted by puny human at 7:16 PM on June 20, 2011

Best thing I saw during my time in Hong Kong -- I could've spent the entire day there and not taken enough photographs.
posted by AJaffe at 7:20 PM on June 20, 2011

Saw it in Singapore, words cannot describe how cool and strange and weird it really is.
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 7:21 PM on June 20, 2011

Nothing like using the flash on those dismembering photos to really blow out any sense of atmosphere.
posted by mrzarquon at 7:23 PM on June 20, 2011

Spirited Away II
posted by The otter lady at 7:23 PM on June 20, 2011

This is me circa 1971 at the Hong Kong park, with my two older sisters. Those visions of hell haunted my dreams for years after. We went at least once a year.
posted by puny human at 7:27 PM on June 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Robert Heinlein's 1953-4 book Tramp Royale has an excellent description of the place.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:42 PM on June 20, 2011

Can someone tell me what in the hell (er... ok, I'm just going to keep going with this sentence before I totally lose my train of thought) is going on in the ones with the bloodied rodents?
posted by brennen at 8:11 PM on June 20, 2011

Though I've been to Hong Kong 4 or 5 times, I've never made it there, for one reason or another. I've always been real curious about it, though: I love that kinda thing.

Thanks for the post.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:13 PM on June 20, 2011

It looks amazing and I want to go there.

It would be extra amazing if the whole place smells faintly of Tiger Balm. The stuff is great, seriously. Mmmm... burny.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:21 PM on June 20, 2011

...in the ones with the bloodied rodents?

I think that's The Hell of Rodent Landmine Victims.

The Chinese have a lot of hells. There's The Hell of Being Cut To Pieces, The Hell of Being Boiled Alive, The Hell of Upside Down Sinners...
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:33 PM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

My grandmother took me to it when I was 8, and I think I still have nightmares about it sometimes. There's this one tower that has a spiral staircase on the outside with NO HANDRAILS, paintings of people being tortured, life-sized "examples" of what happens to you when you die if you're not a good girl/boy growing up.

Everything was vivid, colourful, and bigger than life. SCARY.

(On reflection, no worse than church at 14, but I was older and couldn't be scared by the same stuff.)

@TheWhiteSkull: the hell reserved for people who likes clubbing (they get to dance on a hotplate for eternity), the hell for people who are cowards (they get their liver tore out over and over again) - creative stuff.
posted by Sallysings at 8:39 PM on June 20, 2011

I was supposed to go there with my folks on a trip to HK as a kid. Instead I caught what the hotel doctor described as a "rather nasty virus" and spent the day in bed sipping beef brisket noodles while my brothers went. Their descriptions of the place were incomprehensible.

I'm going to HK again this December. It's not too late to go back, is it?
posted by brownpau at 8:43 PM on June 20, 2011

It's not too late to go back, is it?

Yeah, what's the status of this? Do I have to book my flight soon?
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:52 PM on June 20, 2011

Third Court of Hell

Corruption and greed
Handcuffed and beaten.
posted by clavdivs at 8:56 PM on June 20, 2011

"Yeah, what's the status of this?"

according to wiki, "In 1998 the heir to the property, Sally Aw Sian, sold the entire Garden complex to the land development company Cheung Kong for redevelopment. The Hong Kong Government reached an agreement with Cheung Kong that, as part of the redevelopment, the Hong Kong Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) was to preserve and restore the Haw Par Mansion itself together with its private garden as a museum.
When the Tiger Balm Garden was demolished for redevelopment in 2004, many of the garden's murals and statues were salvaged by the AMO. The site of the Garden is now occupied by the residential development The Legend at Jardine's Lookout. Occupancy of the residence started in the first quarter of 2007."

The Singapore park is in disrepair but there is a movement to restore it to its former glory.

There is also one in Fujian, mainland china, but I can't find much information on it.
posted by puny human at 9:40 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to the one in Singapore in December 09, it is indeed in a bit of a state of disrepair (which kind of adds to its vibe if you ask me), still the thing I enjoyed seeing most in two trips to the Lion City. My students in my class that evening seemed a bit embarrassed after they'd asked what I'd done during the day though.

The Tiger Car is particularly cool.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 9:57 PM on June 20, 2011

This reminds me of a Chinese New Year celebration a few of us had about 25 years ago, wherein we marched up and down the aisles of the food co-op under a long length of cloth chanting "Aw Boon HAW! Aw Boon PAR!" As befits Texas, a man carrying a cow skull was the head of our dragon and we also had those plastic "moo" sound toys. And we smelled vaguely of Tiger Balm.

Aw Boon HAW!
Aw Boon PAR!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:02 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, those sculptures would really get into a child's anybody's subconscious. Surreal and unforgettable.

The main site, Singapore Paranormal Investigators, of your second link has tons of weirdly amusing stuff too, worth exploring.
posted by nickyskye at 11:01 PM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by KingEdRa at 11:44 PM on June 20, 2011

Yep, it's gone; has been for quite some time.

I was lucky enough to see it before it got torn down for yet another fucking highrise.

Nothing in Hong Kong lasts forever, especially when a developer wants to put a building there.
posted by bwg at 12:32 AM on June 21, 2011

This is from Baidu Baike, a Chinese wikipedia clone, on the Fujian site. Very rough translation by me.



Fujian Haw-Par Villa

Located in Yongding County, Xiayang Town, Zhongchuan Village, and constructed by famous overseas patriot Aw Boon Haw beginning in 1946 for 340,000 Hong Kong dollars. This was one of three villas Aw Boon Haw built before his death. The villa was constructed of wood and mud, partially using brick and steel, mixes traditional elements of Western and Chinese architecture, and at three stories, is an impressive structure. Mud walls rise out of a semicircular brick base, making the building novel and towering. The roof is carved in the style of his Western Fujian ancestral home.

In 1991, Fujian added the villa to its register of culturally protected sites in its third round of approvals. In 1993, Aw Boon Haw's daughter Hu Xianbo (pinyin, I'm not sure how she romanizes her name) invested 2,000,000 RMB to restore the site. In 1994, it was developed as a tourist attraction, and the villa's interior was made into a museum exhibiting Aw Boon Haw's life and accomplishments.

I didn't see anything there about sculpture gardens in Fujian, but hopefully you'll all be able to dig up some more clues based on that.
posted by saysthis at 12:37 AM on June 21, 2011

Wow, Haw Par Villa! I haven't thought about that place in ages, and didn't know much about the history of it. This post actually made me dig out my photo album from our 1980s Singapore trip--my mom and aunt took us to Haw Par Villa because they remembered it from when they were kids. It was REALLY surreal in a way that my little brother and I found delightful. I don't remember being at all disturbed by any of the dioramas when I was there as a kid, but good Lord those pics are creeping me out now that I'm an adult!

I'm sorry to find out the Singaporean Haw Par Villa has fallen into disrepair--it was quite well-kept when we saw it. I hope they restore it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:07 AM on June 21, 2011

This is so weird (well, to me, anyway)! Often when my boyfriend wakes me up, the first words out of my mouth are related to whatever dream I was having before he jolted me out of it. This morning, I apparently said "don't use Tiger Balm for hair gel, I don't care who says it's a good idea."

Then I log on and ha! Tiger Balm reference! Spooky. (Well, to me...)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:31 AM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bonus points for Hieronymous Bosch reference!
posted by jillithd at 8:44 AM on June 21, 2011

Unfortunately the villa in Fujian seems rather tame.
posted by of strange foe at 10:20 AM on June 21, 2011

Love it. Visiting the Singapore version as a wee kid many, many years ago was great and a fond memory, I loved how different and interesting it was compared to the usual kids stuff in parks. No idea what my parents were expecting but all those weird demons and smiling tigers ripping people apart just looked happy and different to me, filtered through my cartoon-watching eyes.

Yes, looking at the photos now has me wondering what on earth I was thinking.
posted by N-stoff at 10:29 AM on June 21, 2011

I've been there several times as a child and it is very odd and amazing.

I think that my very first exposure to boobs was actually the statue of the woman breastfeeding her dying father in law in an exhibit on filial piety.

Those sort of mini displays of the 10 levels of hell seem to actually be common, though. I remember one in the somewhat large cemetery complex in Malaysia where my grandmother's ashes are kept.
posted by sawdustbear at 12:48 PM on June 21, 2011

There is another description in Peter Straub's novel Koko.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:23 PM on June 21, 2011

My family would visit the one in Singapore whenever we went through, while living in Kuching in the late eighties. We then visited again on a trip back in 1996, and in the intervening years they'd transformed the ten gates of hell attraction into a water ride. Which i think brought it to just the right level of kitsch, especially when you consider that you came out of the enclosed cave that housed hell and were delivered right to that filial piety sculpture.
posted by jrb223 at 5:13 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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